Derek Bourgeois: Blitz

Context

Derek Bourgeois studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge and the Royal College of Music, where he received specialist composition tutelage by Herbert Howells and conductor education from Si Adrian Boult. Bourgeois worked at a number of places as a lecturer, teacher and conductor, whilst also writing a wealth of his own music. Bourgeois spent most of his life in Britain, but after retiring in 2002, he and his wife settled in Mallorca. Following her death in 2006, Bourgeois then moved to New York City before returning to the UK for the final time. 

Bourgeois’ music covered many different genres, with a particular focus on wind and brass music. He often used his experiences to inspire him to write a wealth of different works. Holding positions like Chair of the UK Composer’s Guild and also founding the National Youth Chamber Orchestra of Great Britain, meant that he met a lot of different people, which certainly shows throughout his music. 

As aforementioned, Bourgeois was a prolific composer for brass and wind bands. Some popular works of his include: Blitz, Serenade, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Sonata for Trombone. His works have been described as “front-running”, “ground-breaking” and “pushing the boundaries”. Bourgeois symphonic works must also receive a mention. Although none properly perforated into commercial concert hall programmes, by the time of his death in 2017, Bourgeois had composed a massive 116 symphonies.

Blitz was composed in 1981 after the Arts Council of Great Britain commissioned Bourgeois to compose a work fit for the finals of the National Brass Band Championships. Black Dyke Band won that year, with Peter Parkes conducting. Bourgeois had this to say in his composer’s note about Blitz: 

 

“The dictionary definition of Blitz is any sudden, overwhelming attack, particularly from the air. It is a shortened form of the German word Blitzkrieg, literally meaning a lightning war. The piece is a test of skill, nerve and stamina, culminating in an aural ‘Blitz’ of great ferocity.”

 

The Music

Opening with 3 quaves played in unison across the band, Blitz soon explodes in different directions. From rip-roaring cornets to bold trombones and basses, the music is quickly torn apart. The fast pace of this opening sets the tempo for the next section. The cascading scales fly up the band before another unison section breaks out, this time it’s highly syncopated. In the quieter section that comes next, Bourgeois utilises a cornet soloist, plus the back row who are now muted for effect. 

This slower and more mysterious section does not last for long as the tempo breaks loose again. The technical stamina required from the cornets in particular is prominent throughout, but especially in these transition sections.  The mood is heavy and Bourgeois’ rich textures support this atmosphere. A solo horn emerges from the rich texture with a shadow of the cornet solo that has passed. The solo cornet then joins in to create this sweet duet between the two. The trombone then plays a variation of the solo, soon accompanied by the euphonium. This theme is passed around various sections until there is a definitive line between the two halves of the band. 

The glorious climax at this point explodes with colour and nuanced dissonance, making it a real spectacle of the piece. As this slow section comes to an end, a bang on the drum signifies the quick change into a much faster tempo. Panic rages across the band as the cornets signal the transition with a whirling figure. The trombones take the lead with the melody here as the cornets accompany with syncopated quavers. The tuned percussion rears its head here, with the harsh sound of the xylophone piercing the texture of the band. 

Bourgeois very interestingly teams up the xylophone with the trombones, who then play a sequence in unison. This is a very interesting pairing as the figure of music is tough and awkward to play on trombone, and would be far better suited to a valved instrument. However, Bourgeois wants to test the band, so he pairs these two sections up and creates a spectacle of their theme together. The band unite for a quick fanfare section before the timpani signal a climax before a short silence. 

The theme then continues, this time led by the cornets. The theme is bouncy and the light accompaniments from the trombones adds to this. A whirling theme is then built up from the basses upwards which creates tension and excitement within the music. A new theme is then played with most of the band in unison. This quirky section shows Bourgeois’ creativity when it comes to melodic writing. 

As the music pushes on, Bourgeois keeps the band’s foot on the gas as the tempo eagerly pushes forward. The quick changes of tonguing will also be prominent for the players, with the subtle changes requiring strategic thinking and planning ahead. A bouncy euphonium solo emerges and the cornet soon takes the melody over. The stamina needed throughout this piece is prominent throughout, and is why Blitz remains one of the most challenging test pieces out there. 

As Blitz begins to come to its end, the band begins to unite more often, creating powerful walls of sound. The bold writing in the last minute and a half from Bourgeois is thrilling and really gives you the feeling of war. The great ferocity in which he speaks at the end of the piece is truly epic, with the syncopation, dissonance and unison playing shining through. With a quick triplet build up the band land on a dissonant chord, with the cornets sitting on a top C. After a short silence the piece ends with one last bang from the whole band. 

 

Final Thoughts

Derek Bourgeois’ Blitz for brass band is a truly epic tale of wartime, the fight for power and the peace in unity. Clocking in at around 11-12 minutes in duration, no stone is left un-turned in Blitz. The piece is a real workout for any band and is a true test of stamina and nerve. 

 

Happy Reading!

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